Mary and the Witch’s Flower may just be impossible to consider on its own terms. This is certainly no fault of the film itself, it’s simply the first feature from Studio Ponoc, the company founded by two veterans of the revered Studio Ghibli after Miyazaki announced his retirement.
Needless to say, those are some pretty big shoes to fill, and Ponoc doesn’t quite manage it. Mary and the Witch’s Flower will give Ghibli fans what they love, but there are simply too many familiar beats and not enough originality for the film to stand on its own.
Like many Ghibli films, it revolves around a girl who finds herself in unusual circumstances. This time it’s the preteen Mary, who has moved into a delightful home in the English countryside with her great-aunt ahead of her parents in the waning days of summer. With no friends and nothing much in the way of entertainment, she’s predictably bored and ready for the kind of trouble such a state generally brings. She wins us over quickly with her wild red hair and well-meaning attempts to be useful to the adults around her, which when combined with her charming childish clumsiness, causes these attempts to fall comically flat.
Mary certainly gets more entertainment than she bargained for after she finds a glowing flower that grants her magical abilities. Soon after, she finds herself at a school of magic where those abilities cause her to be a dubbed a prodigy. In any other movie, this would lead her on a journey into a strange new world and magical destiny. But much like the company that birthed it, Ponoc isn’t interested in catering to the standards set by Hollywood franchises.
Still, the less familiar path Mary and the Witch’s Flower chooses to take manages to be quite problematic. It’s quickly obvious that the intentions of those in charge of the school are pretty sinister, having been corrupted by their obsession with the flower and its powers. Really, these people are so clearly the bad guys that Mary’s mistakes seem less like mistakes than sheer idiocy.
Nearly everyone with magical abilities get some pretty thin character development as well. The professors who find the flower seem to instantly transform from beloved teachers into power-hungry murderers. The school is said to be the best in the world, but we never meet any of the students, or take the time to discover just how the flower has truly affected either them or the institution. The movie almost seems to be anti-individual in how it views magic, so much so that Mary’s big declaration when stopping their plans is about how they don’t need it. Why exactly? Why is almost everyone who has natural magical abilities either ignored or seen as a threat, while that magic is responsible for the truly beautiful visuals and developments? It’s also hard to accept the film’s message as cautionary tale against ambition when the filmmakers clearly have pretty high hopes for themselves.
Many of those lovely visuals will be pretty familiar, even to those who haven’t indulged in the entirety of Ghibli cinema. Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t trying to be anything big and sprawling, and it shouldn’t have to be. What’s missing isn’t a bigger picture, it’s one that’s more consistent.